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Kim Jong il, the Sportsman

Jere Longman

In the political world, Kim Jong il of North Korea was a despot and nuclear antagonist. In the sporting world, he might have been the only guy ever to wear platform shoes, a bouffant hairdo and “Dear Leader” embroidered on his bowling shirt.

In his first match at Pyongyang Lanes, Kim bowled a perfect 300, according to state-run news media, which did not say whether the bumpers were raised. But that is nothing compared with the five holes in one and 38 under par that Kim reportedly shot in his maiden round of golf. No word on whether the course included a windmill, lion’s head and pop-up gopher.

This photo taken on September 24, 2010 shows the Ariang mass gymnastics featuring 100,000 performers to depict the development of North Korea and its origins under the leadership of Kim Il-Sung at May Day Stadium in Pyongyang to mark the 65th anniversary of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea.
AGP | Getty Images

Of course, in a closed, isolated nation like North Korea, it is difficult to separate the milk of fact from the crème of fiction. Some accounts had Kim shooting 11 aces, not merely five.

“The thing about Kim is, he was a humble man, so I could see how he pulled it back and wouldn’t brag too much,” said William K. Wolfrum, a humorist who has blogged frequently about golf. “That’s the equivalent of Kate Moss winning the Coney Island hot dog eating contest. What’s irritating is Western propaganda says it’s untrue. I consider it true till proven false. What really flummoxed the golf world was that he did it dressing very drab.”

And it seems that “in the hole” carries an entirely different meaning in North Korea than at Pebble Beach. Moon Ki-nam, a former national-level soccer coach who defected in 2004, told The Associated Press before the 2010 World Cup that players were rewarded with apartments if they succeeded internationally, but were sometimes sent to coal mines if they lost.

It is impossible to confirm such accusations. But it is clear that Kim’s cult of personality influenced sport as well as politics in North Korea. When Jong Song-ok, a North Korean runner, won the women’s marathon at the 1999 world track and field championships in Seville, Spain, she told reporters, “I imagined in my mind the image of our leader, and this inspired me.”

Until Kim died, Dick Pound, a member of the International Olympic Committee from Montreal, said he was unfamiliar with the Dear Leader’s sporting talents, knowing only that he was an international man of mystery who loved movies, kidnapped the occasional South Korean actress and reportedly could change the weather with his mood.

Upon further reflection, Pound said, “I bet he shot 300 in skeet and was good in horseshoes, too.”

Kim was reported to be a huge basketball fan. Rick Santorum, the Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania senator, once said that North Korea posed less of a security threat than Iran because Kim “doesn’t want to die; he wants to watch N.B.A. basketball.”

In 2009, The Washington Post detailed the Swiss education of Kim’s son and successor, Kim Jong-un, who was said to have little interest in politics in his earlier years and instead “spent hours doing meticulous pencil drawings” of Michael Jordan.

It was through soccer, though, that North Korea’s struggles and peculiarities became most visible to the sporting world. At the 1999 Women’s World Cup, held in the United States, North Korean players arrived with little fanfare or evident dental care.

After one player received free treatment, paid by FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, a tournament spokesman said that five or six other North Koreans complained of apparently phantom ailments so they could have their teeth checked and cleaned, perhaps for the first time.

At the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, FIFA, only slightly more transparent than North Korea, refused to let journalists ask anything substantial of the North’s coach, Kim Jong-hun. Among the most urgent inquiries: did the coach really claim that he was getting tactical instruction through a cellphone invisible to the naked eye from the Dear Leader, who had invented the technology?

After enduring three defeats, including a 7-0 loss to Portugal broadcast on television, North Korea returned home in disgrace. According to a report by Radio Free Asia, which could not be independently confirmed, the team was placed on a stage at the Palace of Culture in Pyongyang, the capital, and was publicly humiliated for six hours in front of 400 government officials, students and journalists.

And American athletes think sports talk radio is harsh. They should count their blessings they were never subjected to Kim and the Mad Dog.

Things only became stranger at the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany. After North Korea lost by 2-0 to the United States, Coach Kim Kwang-min said his team’s play was undermined because five players had been struck by lightning during training a few weeks earlier.

When five North Korean players tested positive for steroids, officials said the doping was accidental and had arisen from traditional medicine involving musk deer glands used to treat the affected players. FIFA did not buy the argument and barred North Korea from the 2015 Women’s World Cup.

“Apparently it was blue skies and 70 degrees the day they were struck by lightning,” said Julie Foudy, an ESPN commentator and former captain of the United States women’s team. “Deer steroids? Kim probably hunted those doe-eyed deer himself. With no gun. And bare hands. On foot. In the dark.”

Now that Kim has died, the sporting world is left to consider his exploits, which were grand and entertaining, if not strictly true.

“The world’s greatest athlete could have just died, for all we know,” said Brandel Chamblee, a commentator on the Golf Channel and former professional golfer.

“Imagine the schedule he kept. Eight to 11 — enrich uranium. One to four — destroy the world. Four to seven — play golf, shoot 11 holes-in-one and call it a night. I don’t remember him popping up at the Masters. He should have tried to get his tour card.”